‘Not just a flood, but a toxic flood’: Lead mining waste sits in the same floodwaters as Northeast Oklahoma homes and businesses
, 2022-11-18 05:01:48,
But a threat looms ever present. It comes from the creek.
“The people do not just get a flood,” Jim told her audience. “They get a toxic flood.”
Miami is the largest city in Ottawa County in Oklahoma’s northeastern corner. The area is dotted with closed lead and zinc mines. Before they closed in the 1960s, those mines generated massive piles of chat—leftover gravel from metal processing that wasn’t useful to sell but still contains high levels of heavy metals.
The county is filled with scenic creeks and streams. One of those is Tar Creek, which carries dangerous levels of lead, zinc and cadmium from the old mines into Miami and other communities. Downstream, the creek joins the Neosho River and becomes part of Grand Lake.
“We knew Tar Creek had metals in it, but no one had imagined the amount of stuff coming down from the chat piles,” Jim said.
Tar Creek is a Superfund site—an area so contaminated with hazardous materials that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has earmarked it for investigation and clean-up. The Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma and the state Department of Environmental Quality oversee the clean-up of Tar Creek. Since they began in the 1980s, those agencies have spent more than $300 million removing toxic materials from the area around Tar Creek.
When Tar Creek floods, it spreads the lead, zinc and cadmium in its waters across the communities of Ottawa County.
Jim is the co-founder and executive director of LEAD Agency, a group based in Miami seeking to educate the community about Tar Creek’s toxic history and advocate for its cleanup.
“Imagine Tar Creek flooded and all that chat in the flood water when it is raging,” said Martin Lively, another environmental advocate with the LEAD Agency. “Think about what’s happening to that chat in that moment. Think about everything else in that location that…
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